On Sun. Oct. 2, over 100 local musicians, activists, and members of the community gathered at Redux Contemporary Art Center for what would turn out to be a roughly four-hour forum called Southern Discomfort, which addressed race and privilege in the Charleston music scene. Musicians Elliott Smith and McKenzie Eddy (both of The Very Hypnotic Soul Band) and Anjali Naik (Diaspoura) organized the event after an offensive drawing from Tyler Bertges (Hermit's Victory) was called out as racist on social media and the music community demanded answers as to how something like that could happen in the first place.
Smith, along with KJ Kearney, democratic candidate for S.C. House of Representatives District 15, moderated the forum, calling it a "safe space" and encouraging all to speak out. Smith also urged folks to be present. "I'm an attorney, and I talk all the time — but it took me a long time to learn to listen," he began. "And I don't mean to be cliché. It's real; I'm shaking as I say that, because I know what that means. It takes being brave — not to pat myself on the back; I've got a lot to learn — but it takes a capacity for braveness. It takes us wanting to go out of our way to learn more and admitting to ourselves that we don't know much."
The panel, which at times included Eddy, Khari Lucas (Contour), Fitzgerald Wiggins (Benjamin Starr), Dave Curry (Black Dave), Karmen Cook (Girls Rock), and Kim Larson (Girls Rock, Southern Femisphere) interchanged all night, with Bertges taking the hot seat for a spell. When asked what panelists hoped to gain from the discussion, Naik responded, "In order to make these things OK, I really think that talking about it is so valid, and it'll really create a shared understanding. But I really am hoping that it doesn't turn out to be a conversation that people believe in, but they don't actually use the resources they have in order to do anything about it."
Though Bertges' drawing spawned the idea for the forum, much of the discussion focused on venues and white access versus black access in the music scene. The apparent lack of inclusiveness among local venues has long been an issue, according to artists like Wiggins. "For many people in and around the Charleston music scene, it's not as inclusive to everybody as many would like to believe," he said. "It's a real struggle, especially as a hip-hop artist."
During the forum, Wiggins pointed to several examples of when he's been ignored or denied access in local venues over the past 10 years, but one example that sticks out came last summer, the same summer that he, Smith, Eddy, Quentin Ravenel, and Jimmie Choate formed the Very Hypnotic Soul Band. They performed for the first time at Charleston Music Hall's Hi Harmony community concert, which was organized in response to the murder of the Emanuel Nine.
Wiggins said that he and Vaughn Postema (Do Work Media), for months, tried to book a venue for the launch of Free Lunch, his then-new record under his Benjamin Starr moniker. The release date? June 19. "Two days prior to that, Emanuel happened," Wiggins said. "The interesting part is finding a venue to host the release party months in advance — and I reached out to many of them that I have been able to perform at now because the band I am in has three white people in it. Before we had original music to put on our EP, we covered my records. So I was in those [same] venues, who would let me in as a hip-hop artist with a band covering my own songs, disguising myself, having to alter myself, because I guess their view of hip-hop is delegitimized to a certain degree that 'we only want hip-hop this way — we'll let him in this way.'"
He continued, "I've performed at more venues in Charleston in the past year since I've been with this band than in almost 10 years as a solo hip-hop artist. However, when it was time to have the Hi-Harmony show after a race tragedy happened, the idea for the show was to have equal representation of music and culture on the stage. They found me and Matt Monday at that point, when it's important for the community to see diversity on the stage — after nine people had to die, they found us to perform. First time I've ever performed in the Music Hall."
Matt Bostick (Matt Monday) has had similar experiences over the past decade. At 17, he began performing at the Music Farm under his former moniker, Rightus. "So that's 10 years that I've seen what has happened," he said. "Most of the issues that are affecting us in the art community include the lack of ability to be included in spaces and events so that we can be seen by everybody. I feel like art inspires art and art influences art, no matter who created the art. And I think cutting off people because of race or any other differences kind of takes us backwards. So today I just want us to understand why the infrastructure is what it is and how it came to be."
Bostick said that on multiple occasions, he's reached out to local venues about booking a show — in vain. He'd wait for weeks and months with no response, only to get immediate results after going through a white connection, like local artist Ben Fagan. "Why is it that people who look like me have to go through third parties to display their work? Why is it that I can reach out to these people, not through them, but myself, for two months, and I call Ben Fagan and he gets an answer in two hours? That's curious," Bostick said. "Why? That's my main question: Why is that?"
But Bostick was quick to point out he's not upset about artists like Fagan having privilege. "It's not your fault that you have privilege," he said. "You're born the way you're born. It's how you respond to that privilege that I have a curiosity about. It's almost like, if I'm contacting a venue and I say, 'Hey, my name's Matt, the first question to me is what kind of music I play. I say hip-hop. The next question, and this is routine, the next question is, 'What kind of people are coming?' That's the one that makes it very weird. And 'people who listen to music' is probably the most [common] answer I give.
"It's a lengthy process until privilege kicks in," Bostick continued, noting that when his white counterpart steps in, "they get no questions asked, except 'just give me a time and date.'"
Curry, whose stage name is Black Dave, runs local cultural website Charleston Hype as well as a monthly hip-hop night at Compass on King. Though he's now had 10 successful shows there over the past year, he got off to a rocky, unsure start. "The first show I threw, they almost shut it down when they realized it was a rap show," he said. "I remember the guy who helped me build the show, P.J. [Taylor Jr.], great dude. He came up to me and said they were thinking about shutting down the show, 'but I told him you're cool; I told him your crowd's cool, so you should be good.' Obviously we're still good but to have that first experience, was really annoying."
Curry continued, "We should be held to the same standards as everybody else, whether it's hip-hop, whether it's rock. I played in a hardcore band. I can easily get booked into hardcore shows, where more kids fight than when I play hip-hop shows. I played at Cumberland's, I played at the Music Farm — I've played all these places. We've had situations where [venue owners] say, 'What's in it for us?' Happens all the time; it's not new."
John Kenney of the Royal American, along with Music Hall director Charles Carmody, attended the forum. Kenney responded, saying the city's social segregation stood out to him as soon as he moved here. "I grew up in D.C., and it's obviously extremely diverse, and I took that for granted," he said. "It wasn't just a black-and-white thing; it was people from all over the world. And I lived in New York City after that and moved to Charleston and was like, 'Man, there's definitely much more of a racial divide here and a lack of diversity.' So at the Royal American, while we are a rock club, we do have room for other types of acts. We try to be as diverse as possible at the Royal American, but obviously also have a long way to go. You get booked if you're good and if you're going to bring people. We're not a nonprofit; we do it to sell drinks and to get people in the room. But you also have to be good, so there's that aspect."
Many venue reps were not present, though we did reach out to many to give them a chance to comment. While no one claimed responsibility for being partial to non-hip-hop artists, several, including the Music Hall, expressed a desire to bring diversity to future lineups.
When we spoke with Wiggins a couple of weeks ago, he challenged all venues to be proactive when it comes to being more inclusive and also credited specific places that have stepped up of late to welcome more hip-hop artists to their stages. "There are events and venues, like PURE Theatre and Redux Contemporary Art Center and Joe Pasta, who are opening their doors to having more diverse events and also welcoming in a diverse crowd of black and brown people," he said. "But I'd like to put it back on the owners of venues, to really say, 'I want to know how you feel about it.'"
He continued, "It's the fact that on face value, so much of our art and culture isn't given legitimacy by the people who control much of the infrastructure of the Charleston music scene, and that is the problem. Young people like myself need to discuss how to attain that, but at the same time progress doesn't flow from negative to positive. It flows from positive to negative. So it's a task to whom much is given, much is required, especially when a lot of owners who are benefitting from our culture refuse to invest back in it."
Lucas, who performs as Contour, suggests that if a venue that normally hosts rock shows can't accommodate a hip-hop act, then they should offer an alternative. He said, "You as a business owner should be able to direct that person, but if there isn't any place to direct them to, then there's a problem."
The Music Hall's Carmody accepted the responsibility of local venues to nurture a more diverse scene. "It's venues and the city, geographically, as a whole, he said. "It's so fucking split. It sucks. It's horrible."
He continued, "The one goal for me through this is for us to cross that physical split and blow the doors open. We have to."
A discussion about the local and regional hip-hop industry will be led by Benjamin Starr at Palmetto Brewing's Music Meetup on Thurs. Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m.